Descending the steps of the U Bahnhof Rathaus Steglitz in Berlin Irmela Mensah Schramm threads through the labyrinth of passageways making her way to the station platforms. Nazi Graffiti she noticed on the walls of the U Bahn the previous day is her objective. Once she relocated the far-right messages, she quickly paints them over with her own black spray can with a precision of action born of over 30 years of practice: "I wanted and needed this to be gone as soon as possible", she comments while spraying. "I find the fact that it is there hard to bear." Now, her immediate mission at the U Bahn finished, Irmela moves on into the stations surrounding streets. Checking cigarette dispensers, playgrounds, lampposts and passageways on the hunt for any banned Nazi symbols daubed by the far right.
Within Germany, 74-year-old Irmela is known as "The Spraying Granny". Born in Stuttgart in 1945, she is a Berlin resident since 1969 and had worked in a school for the mentally handicapped until her retirement in 2006. Wandering the streets of Berlin, she is on a one-woman mission to purge the capital and Germany of the far rights messages and insignia. "Many years ago, I kept calling the police over Nazi graffiti and stickers that I saw in my neighbourhood. I called them so many times and they did nothing. It was then that I decided to do something myself." Armed with her signature white cotton bag with "No right to stay for Nazis and Racists" felt tipped in her own handwriting on the side and filled with spray paint, scrapers, solvent, as well as camera and notebook to document and collect the offending fascist stickers. Interestingly, in these Corona times some hand sanitizer is also included.
Irmela has not only been active in Berlin and Germany, she also has an international element to her work: "I 've painted over Nazi graffiti in Poland, Austria, Italy, Belgium, Luxembourg and Finland. But it is only in Germany that I 've been arrested and charged for my work." Irmela is referring to a charge and court appearance for painting hearts over Nazi graffiti in Eisenach in Thuringia in 2019. She has had previous arrests and warnings for ‘property damage’ but the court cases have always been discontinued. This changed in October 2019, when the Eisenach District Court fined her 300 Euro plus the costs for property damage for spraying over a Nazi slogan totalling 1050 Euro. "Since 1988 I have been reported 15 times, arrested 11 times, indicted 7 times in Germany. I 've been convicted twice for property damage but the proceedings have always been discontinued or dropped at appeal." Irmela also contested the judgement and the case again was dropped at a higher court in Jena in March this year, as not in the public interest to proceed. Irmela always states on these occasions: "I did no wrong and made no mistake."
For her efforts of being – in her words: "The political cleaning lady of the nation", Irmela has received ongoing threats of violence and even death through letters to her home, emails and on the streets. Several assaults have occurred against her while she was undertaking her cleaning mission. This hasn’t dissuaded her from continuing, as she adheres to a strong sense of moral duty: "I was born in 1945 at the end of the war. So, what happened before with the Nazis and National Socialism was not my responsibility. But whatever came after I was born, it is."
Asked if she will continue during these times of Corona, she answers "I follow the distance rules, wash my hands frequently` adding playfully ‘I haven’t had anyone trying to kiss me on the street! Walking is still not forbidden and I am alone in my work and no one has expressly forbidden me from continuing."
Surprisingly, Irmela has just received another fresh criminal order served on her from the town Königs Wusterhausen pertaining to an incident at a protest against the AfD in 2019. Time will tell if this new criminal accusation will also fall by the way side as others have done: "It's like the Nazis are trying to wear me down. But as long as I have the strength I will always continue with my work."